My first experience of living in an intentional community was at age 53, and the first four days there were among the most challenging of my life.
It was 2001, and I had come to Lost Valley Educational Center near Eugene, Oregon, at the invitation of my then 25-year-old daughter Sarah who was there for an organic gardening internship. She was enjoying her time there and wanted to share the experience, plus the community needed someone to head up food preservation activities, something I knew about from growing up in an Iowa farm family and from preserving the fruits of my avid gardening. She wanted me to share my skills and teach the young adults there how to “put up” food.
I jumped at the opportunity for the two-month work-trade position. My friends in Houston thought I was crazy: “A visit, yes, but two months? What are you thinking?” Sarah and another community member met me at the train station, gave me a warm welcome, and settled me into my room at the guest house. She introduced me to a few people, including one of my “supervisors” for the food preservation project—an intense young man with scary tattoos and lots of piercings (even in his nipples…I had never seen THAT before!). The next day, my daughter left for the weekend. Her new boyfriend (who eventually became her husband) was leaving town for a month and wanted to celebrate her birthday. So off she went, bidding me to settle in and enjoy myself.
Although I’m not a shy person, it was a long and lonely weekend for me. Many of the community members were gone for a few days and the others were running a four-day personal growth workshop (Naka-Ima) so they were totally focused on those responsibilities. Throughout the weekend I would hear shouting, howling, and cries of despair coming from the classroom area. Hmmm. I was invited to share meals, but the intensity of the dinner-table conversation related to the workshop drove me to eat alone in my room, partly to honor the process of the workshop participants but also because I didn’t have a clue what anyone was talking about!
Had I been in possession of a car, I would have written a “Dear Sarah…what have you gotten me into?” letter and been out of there. But I had no car, so I retreated completely to my room. When Sarah returned on Monday, she found me curled in a fetal position on my bed contemplating my navel and trying to comprehend the situation.
She encouraged me to tell her what was wrong, so I really let her know EVERYTHING that was wrong…in MY opinion. She listened…and then listened some more. She apologized for “leaving me stranded in this alien land,” as I had put it. It turns out that the community members had thought that Sarah was going to give me an orientation and spend the first few days with me, while she had assumed that they, probably the Pierced One, would take care of those things…and I simply fell through the cracks.
As I berated her for “throwing me to the wolves” and insisted that she arrange transportation to a rental car location or the train station, she gently encouraged me to calm down and work through this so that we could carry on with our original plans. But I was beyond mad and in panic mode and would have none of it…especially when she said that she would find a third person to “sit” with us (which I soon learned is community-speak for a mediator). I believe my response was something like “Absolutely not. This is nobody’s business but ours!”
That’s when I saw her love for me, her trust in the members of the community, and her strength as a woman living her heart’s passion come together in a way that would eventually transform our relationship and my life. She stood up, took hold of my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. “If you won’t do it for yourself, Mama, do it for me.” That’s the day I fully realized that the “elder” in a situation is not necessarily the “older.” Those words of wisdom coming from my daughter pierced through my fear and my anger and opened the door to the adventure of a lifetime.
A few hours later, we “sat” with one of the elders of the community, who was at least 10 years younger than me, and I once again experienced the profound beauty and healing of deep listening and compassionate communication. Dee was a loving and compassionate woman who had spent years developing these skills. She helped me cut through my anger to the core of the pain I was feeling, encouraging me to reconnect with the special bond that Sarah and I had as mother and child, and leading me to a place in my heart where I could see and respect my daughter as the beautiful and confident young woman she was becoming.
Before we started, we sat together in silence and slowed down our breathing, gathering our awareness into the present moment and relaxing into each other’s presence. When she looked at Sarah and me, I could see that she was genuinely interested in us and wanted to support us. There was no sense of urgency or impatience and, to my amazement and relief, no apparent judgment on her part that I was some clueless mainstream mama from Texas.
As Sarah had done earlier, Dee listened…and then listened some more. She asked, “What about this situation threatens you?” and “What is your greatest fear related to Sarah?,” all the while encouraging me to go deeper with each question, never judging but sometimes reflecting back what I had said to make sure that she had understood me correctly. She turned to Sarah and asked, “What are your needs related to your mother’s visit and to your relationship in general?” On it went for almost two hours…asking, listening, openly sharing, reflecting, going deeper, and, in the process, transforming.
So I stayed for the two months, immersed myself in community life, made new friends (including a deep appreciation and love for the Pierced One), and happily fulfilled my work-trade duties—picking blackberries and apples, making jam and apple butter, and teaching canning techniques to dozens of young people. I also did things which, though unplanned, turned out to be some of the most valuable and transformational activities of my life, such as participating in the Naka-Ima workshop which had alarmed me that first weekend. I learned a lot about myself, all the while thoroughly enjoying my new relationship with my daughter.
During that summer, I realized that many of my fellow communitarians were working through struggles with their parents regarding their own decisions to live in community. I heard their stories and found myself, unexpectedly, growing into the role of elder as I began “sitting” with some of their parents who had come for a visit. This role culminated the weekend that I finally participated as a student in Naka-Ima, along with three other mothers, while our daughters assisted at the workshop. Everyone at Lost Valley lovingly dubbed that weekend “Mama-Ima.” [A description of this experience is online at lostvalley.org/talkingleaves/node/133.]
In preparation for writing this article, I asked my friend, Devon, to recollect her conflict with her parents around her decision to join Lost Valley. She recounted:
I am not sure when I communicated with my parents about choosing to join the community as a “member.” I just remember how difficult it was and some of the fear-based responses that I heard from them. “You can't do this to us."“It’s a cult and we are worried about you.” “It’s not fair to us.” “Join the real world.” Etc. I felt upset that they were not owning their feelings but instead putting them on me, telling me that my decisions caused them pain and fear and, therefore, I was being “selfish.”
The tension in their dialog eased the weekend Devon’s mother participated in “Mama-Ima.”
At the workshop, she had plenty of time to talk with the other mothers. They shared their experiences, fears, worries, and concerns. I think it was a great relief for my mom. They also created a ritual to release their daughters as children and connect with them as young women. It was powerful and transforming. I know some things shifted for my mom that weekend.
While participating in community life with my daughter, first in Oregon and later in communities in France, Iowa, and Missouri, I have met dozens of young communitarians who are truly devastated by the conflict they are experiencing with their parents over their decision to pull away from a mainstream lifestyle. I think it is pretty safe to say that most parents want what is “best” for their children and for their children to be happy. But the rub is that parents can usually offer only what they know, which may include a steady job, benefits and health insurance, a traditional family lifestyle, and modern conveniences (cars/planes, computers, appliances) that all translate to them as a safe, secure life. Living in a community rarely fits into that picture.
Intergenerational conflict is nothing new, but we are living in transformative and chaotic times. Whether those of us who are parents like it, or not, our lives are different in ways we never dreamed or expected, including our children’s lifestyle choices. To reduce the parent-child relationship to a debate about the merits or costs of these lifestyle choices or other issues is to jeopardize some of the most wonderful things about being human—our heart connection, our capacity for love and acceptance, and our joy.
Parents have a choice…to open up and stay connected with their children by truly seeing them as adults who have the God-given right to choose their life’s path OR to forfeit that connection by resisting and attacking the life their children have thoughtfully chosen. Devon wrote:
I feel grateful that my parents have been willing to accept me no matter what, and I know it has not been easy for any of us. While living in community, I met many people who had severed all ties with their families. Their parents did not even know where they were living. At times, I actually envied them. I had so many struggles, and still do, communicating with my parents! Even so, I am extremely grateful for their acceptance and love.
Just like their parents, adult children also have a choice…to show respect and express their appreciation and gratitude to their parents for the values they share in a compassionate and loving way OR to focus only on the disagreements and create a permanent barrier to a loving connection.
Sometimes in community, it felt easier to just adopt the other friends and residents as my family rather than work on loving and accepting my own family. But by making that effort and doing the work, I have come to really appreciate my parents and I am so glad that I have.
Most of us go to great lengths to avoid emotional struggle and pain, but the truth is that by doing so we inevitably cause more of it. Based on my experiences, and those of so many others that I have witnessed, mustering up the courage and making the time to communicate and discuss these sensitive issues pays off a hundred-fold.
It is worth noting that the need for this work never stops. Several years ago, Sarah called from England to excitedly share the “wonderful news” (I thought she was going to tell me that she was pregnant!) that she had decided to be car-free! THUD. Memories flooded in…joyful road trips together, the freedom to travel at will, the promise that “Even though Ethan is carfree, I will always ride in the car with you, Mama.” I felt like I was in one of those movies where you can time-travel to the past in a spinning vortex….right back to 2001 in that lonely room in the guest house filled with anxiety that I had lost all connection with my daughter. The hurt was no different. I told Sarah that it felt like she had just spit in my face! All of my pain and fears rushed out at her over the phone. We were both surprised and devastated for our own reasons.
But this time, at least, I knew there was work to be done and how to do it. This time, I listened…to my own pain and aspirations and to those of my daughter. As she crossed the Atlantic to come home, I wrote her a long letter sharing what I had learned. This “conflict” became another opportunity to grow closer. And we did.
If the community of Lost Valley had not made the decision to offer workshops that teach the skills of nonviolent (compassionate) communication and deep listening, my relationship with Sarah may never have achieved such positive transformation. I thank them for this gift from the bottom of my heart. It is my fervent hope that other communities will see personal growth and loving interpersonal communication as priorities, and make them available to their members and visitors as well.
My daughter, Sarah, and her husband, Ethan, went on to found a new community in northeast Missouri called The Possibility Alliance. Our paths continue to align, so my husband and I purchased a home where I can live close-by during half the year. For the past three years, new community members, interns, and visitors have arrived at The Possibility Alliance in Missouri who are struggling with family conflict over their lifestyle choices. As the gray-haired mother/grandmother/elder figure (let’s be honest, that’s how they see me, at least until they get to know ME), I encourage them to invite their parents for a visit and, whenever I can, I host the older generation at my nearby home (affectionately called “The Annex”) so that we can have a talk.
When the time is right, I share my story, this story…and I listen.
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Victoria wishes to thank Devon Bonady, Dee Kehoe, Sarah Wilcox-Hughes, Ethan Hughes, Ann Sieber, and Trish Haas for their inspiration and collaboration in writing this article.